A Tactical Guide for Concerned Community Members

Based on the talk at the 2023 National Innovative Communities Conference by Dr. Evita Limon-Rocha

Mental health is a critical part of our overall health, and young people are especially susceptible to some of the more pernicious outcomes of mental health issues. Young people are at the mercy of their rapidly changing biologies during a tumultuous historical period in our country, and depending on their community and family situation, additional external stresses can come into play on their mental states. 

Unfortunately, the mental health stigma in our country is a major barrier to getting help, especially for this vulnerable population. This article will discuss:

  1. The prevalence of mental health problems in young people
  2. The impact of stigma, and 
  3. How we can work to destigmatize mental healthcare.

Prevalence of Mental Health Problems in Young People

The data is clear: mental health problems are on the rise among young people. In 2020, 4.1 million adolescents in the United States had at least one major depressive episode, and 14.8 million adults had at least one major depressive episode with severe impairment. Additionally, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness have increased 40% among high school students between 2009 and 2019.

These statistics are alarming, but they are not surprising. Young people are facing a number of challenges that can contribute to mental health problems, including bullying, social media pressure, academic stress, and family conflict.

Impact of Stigma

Mental health stigma is a major barrier to getting help. People who are struggling with mental health problems often feel ashamed or embarrassed, and they may be afraid of being judged or discriminated against. This can prevent them from seeking help, which can lead to much worse outcomes.

Stigma can also have a negative impact on the mental health of young people. Studies have shown that stigma can increase the risk of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts. It can also make it more difficult for young people to cope with stress and challenges.

How We Can Destigmatize Mental Healthcare

There are a number of big-picture things that we can do to destigmatize mental healthcare. At the end of this post, we’ll suggest some tactical strategies and immediate actions we can all take to help anyone who might be struggling. 

  1. First, we need to talk about mental health more openly. We need to challenge the stereotypes and misconceptions about mental illness. We also need to make sure that young people have access to accurate information about mental health.
  2. Second, we need to support mental health education in schools. This education should teach young people about the signs and symptoms of mental health problems, as well as how to get help.
  3. Third, we need to change the way that we talk about mental illness in the media. The media often portrays mental illness in a negative light, which can contribute to stigma. We need to demand more positive and accurate portrayals of mental illness in the media.
  4. Finally, we need to be role models for young people. If we want to destigmatize mental healthcare, we need to be open about our own mental health experiences. We need to show young people that it is okay to talk about mental health, and that it is okay to seek help.

Actionable Ideas for Destigmatizing Mental Health in Your Community 

  1. Activate the power of connectedness: Feeling connected to school, peers, and adults can be protective against mental health problems, so working together to create places, groups, forums, and communities where people can come together to pursue common interests or goals can be helpful. This could be anything from a book club to a craft night at a local coffee shop. It could be an online forum to talk about a hobby or a school club that meets at lunch to work on a common goal. 
  2. Model the importance of self-care: It is important to recognize signs of stress and burnout in ourselves and others, so that we can take care of ourselves and our communities. As parents, friends, and leaders, we can model this critical focus by talking about how we take care of ourselves. Discuss the ways you blow off stress with the young people in your life. Invite them to take a walk with you, or watch a movie. Talk about meditation or the way you sometimes just close your eyes and breathe, remembering what you feel gratitude for in your life. 
  3. Create safe spaces: It is important to create safe spaces where people feel comfortable talking about their mental health. This could be a physical space, such as a therapist’s office or a support group, or it could be a virtual space, such as an online forum or chat room.
  4. Ask open-ended questions: When talking about mental health, it is important to ask open-ended questions. This allows the person to share their thoughts and feelings without feeling judged. For example, instead of asking “Are you feeling depressed?” you might ask “How are you feeling today?”
  5. Address stigma openly: When people are afraid to talk about their mental health, they are less likely to seek help. This can lead to the development of more serious mental health problems. By addressing stigma, we can help people to get the help they need.

What to Do if Someone Close to You is Struggling

Understanding the issues our youth are facing and how they may be internalizing the stress and conflict from some of those issues is good. Talking about it is one step closer to removing stigma. If you believe someone close to you is struggling with their mental health, don’t assume they will figure it out. Offer to be the understanding ear they might need, and take action if necessary. 

Understand the difference between anxiety and depression

Anxiety and depression are both common mental health problems, but they are different. Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry and fear, while depression is characterized by sadness, loss of interest, and changes in sleep and appetite. Educate yourself so that you can help the young people in your life recognize these common issues and assist them in finding help. 

Signs and symptoms of anxiety and depression: Anxiety and depression can manifest in a variety of ways, but some common signs and symptoms include:

  • Persistent sadness or hopelessness
  • Changes in appetite or sleep
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Irritability or anger
  • Fatigue or loss of energy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Reach Out for Help

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems, please reach out for help:

  • There are many resources available, including hotlines, websites, and support groups. Start here:

Be a Stigma Warrior and Help Our Young People Thrive

Mental health is an important part of overall health, and it is especially important for young people. Mental health stigma is a major barrier to getting help, but there are a number of things that we can do to destigmatize mental healthcare. By talking about mental health more openly, supporting mental health education in schools, and changing the way that we talk about mental illness in the media, we can help to create a more supportive environment for young people who are struggling with mental health problems.